Netcom faces death sentence

Internet service provider Netcom has been sentenced to death. The charge?

Internet service provider Netcom has been sentenced to death. The charge? Wanton spamming.

Unless an agreement is reached, anti-spammers say they will effectively disconnect Netcom On-Line Communication Services' U.S. division from Usenet, beginning Monday.

Netcom, they say, has taken little action to keep its users from flooding Usenet, a collection of thousands of topical bulletin boards, with unrelated posts. This practice, known in Net lingo as spamming, has rendered most of Usenet anything but useful, anti-spammers say.

As of Friday it appeared that the so-called Usenet Death Penalty (UDP) would be carried out.

Netcom has been in hot water with anti-spammers for some time; the company allegedly allows its users and even non-Netcom spammers to use its network for bulk, unsolicited e-mail and newsgroup posts, and has disregarded persistent complaints from e-mail and Usenet users.

Recently the service came under the e-mail equivalent of a UDP, which effectively blocked all e-mail from Netcom to the outside world. The e-mail blockade ended in January after Netcom negotiated an agreement.

Netcom officials have said they are negotiating with anti-spammers, and believe the UDP will be lifted before Monday. But spam hunters said Netcom will probably fall under the ax, at least for a few days.

"I think it'll probably happen," said Rich Tietjens, a software engineer and anti-spammer. "Netcom has, how shall I put this, either the most clueless or the most egregiously stupid abuse desk of any ISP."

The UDP would affect only newsgroup postings from Netcom U.S., not from any of Netcom's other subsidiaries. It also would not affect e-mail from Netcom. Legitimate posts from Netcom users would be affected, right along with the spam.

So who exactly is Netcom up against?

UDPs are carried out by people known on Usenet as "cancellers," who tend to be system administrators or long-time Usenet users. These spam-destroyers look for people who send a single message to large numbers of newsgroups -- a sure sign that the message is spam -- and then issue a "cancel" command for that specific message. The cancel command requests Usenet system administrators to erase the offending message; if the command issues from a canceller with a good reputation, it is usually honored.

When a UDP is agreed upon, cancellers band together to cancel all Usenet postings from a specific network -- in this case, Netcom's. The result is that, essentially, the outside world will never see any post issued by a Netcom user, or relayed over Netcom's network.

UDPs have worked in the past. The death sentence was carried out on UUNET for several days last fall, until UUNET stated it would toughen its policies against spammers and institute technology changes to keep them off the network.


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